If you want to keep your heart and overall health in the safe limits, exercise, rest and better schedule management is the key.
We’re not suggesting you throw away everything stressful in your life – small amounts of emotional stress are healthy. This kind of stress will keep you on track in your everyday life, because of it you are less likely to break deadlines, and accomplish your life goals or day-to-day activities. However, some recent research has shown that chronic and excessive stress can be as detrimental to your heart as eating highly fatty food or leading a sedentary lifestyle.
The study used positron emission tomography-computerized tomography (PET/CT) scans of the amygdala, which is also known as the brain’s fear and stress center. What the study revealed was that people with increased amygdala activity showed higher degrees of inflammation in their arteries and bone marrow. Over time (up to five years), participants with a regularly activated amygdala had 60% higher risk of getting a heart attack. The results of the research study were published in February 2017, in the journal The Lancet.
Erin Michos, MD, a preventive cardiologist at the Johns Hopkins Medicine in Baltimore said that “stress can be subjective. But this study was fascinating because it actually measured the stress response on the brain and its negative impact on the body.”
There is also some other research that points out the connection between stress and risks of contracting heart disease. Such is the study published in May 2015 in the journal Circulation: Cardiovascular Quality and Outcomes, that shows divorce (a rather stressful event), increased the risk of heart attack significantly in both men and women, with a particular accent in women that have gone through divorce more than once.
But stress can also increase the risk of contracting a heart disease indirectly. “People who are stressed tend to have poor coping behaviors,” said Dr. Michos. They may sleep poorly, and smoke, drink, or binge eat to comfort themselves.
Another study published in December 2017 in the Egyptian Heart Journal showed that overeating can increase the risk of heart attack by 3.7 times. In a similar fashion, a meta-analysis that was published in March 2017 in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology showed an increased risk of heart disease and stroke in people that suffered from insomnia.
Luckily, there is some good news, as regardless of the fact that stress can sometimes feel out of our control, it’s all in our heads. According to Kiran Dintyala, MD, CEO and President of Stress Free Revolution, and author of Calm in the Midst of Chaos, “you create the stress response, using the power of your own thoughts.” This, in retrospect, means that we are also able to create a sense of calm on our own, we just have to try.
Health Experts Recommended Stress Techniques
So as to help reduce stress and subsequently – reduce the risk of heart disease, some health experts shared their best stress techniques and strategies. Here are six of them:
During our stressful periods, such as waiting for test results, or during major presentation preparation, Dr. Dintyala suggests “just watch your breath.” During this time, we should increase focus on thinking about something else, rather than on the thing that’s making us feel stressed. “As long as you focus on your stressful thoughts, they’re real to you,” Dintyala says. “But the moment you take your focus off them, they go away."
The American Heart Association claims that breathing exercises are good stress-management tools that can help us manage stress levels and lower the risks of heart disease.
Jennifer Mieres, MD, a leading expert in the field of cardiovascular disease in women and author of Heart Smart for Women says that “any sort of deep breathing or refocusing can get us back to a less inflammatory state.”
One of the techniques to lower stress levels is to breathe in through the nose for a second, and exhale a few seconds longer. However, Stacey Funt, MD, who is a lifestyle medicine specialist and wellness coach says: “But don’t set yourself up to feel like a relaxation failure, as in ‘I didn’t do any breathing today.”
“Breathe without judgment and expectation. If you remember to do your breathing exercises, great,” she adds.
- Stay away from your phone
Whenever you’re waiting in a line, be it at the post office, the supermarket, or Starbucks, refrain yourself from reaching for the phone. Stand still and relax your brain. “Our brains need natural rest periods throughout the day to recoup and face the next challenge or situation,” says Dr. Funt. “Don’t fill them with phone time.”
- Follow a schedule
Another way of reducing stress, you should “take an inventory of what trips you up the most,” advises Funt. An example of this are routine actions like cooking dinner. If these leave you exhausted, go ahead and make a weekly menu plan on Sunday. “Without a doubt, if I spend 10 minutes on Sunday planning a menu for the week, my weeks go much better,” says Funt.
- Rearrange your To-Do list
If you’re the kind of person that is under a pressure to finish the tasks you’ve set in your to-do list, you can go about this by making two of those lists: a priority to-do list, and another one, not so important. With those two to-do lists at hand, “I can stop worrying that I’m going to forget something, but not feel pressured to get everything done immediately,” says Funt.
If you want to reduce stress, “one of the most important things you can do is to choose to move every day,” Dr. Mieres says. An average of 150 weekly minutes of moderate intensity physical activity is recommended, such as active walking, which produces endorphins, which are a type of chemicals that calms us down and help us sleep better, and that helps reduce stress significantly.
So as to make sure you will continue doing that, pick some activities that you enjoy doing.
“I love to run because it’s outside and it gets me out of my head,” says Michos. His way of doing things is by running alone on weekdays and joins a running group on Saturday morning, and this has become a strong support group for him and other participants. “We talk about our lives and what’s bothering us about our kids, spouses, and work,” she says. “Saturday morning is the highlight of my whole week.”
However, if you suddenly feel highly stressed, do some fast movements for a minute or so. “Jog in place, shift from foot to foot or shake your hands in the air really fast,” says Funt. “Moving helps you get out of your brain and into your physical body.”
- Have more fun!
According to Funt, “the more you take care of yourself and the more you’re experiencing pleasure, the less reactive you will be to outside stressors.”
Take a moment to think about the stressful parts of your life and find a way to make them seem more enjoyable.
What worked for Funt is that she tweaked a bit her commute to work. It takes her over an hour to get to work during rush-hour. In order to make her driving experience more enjoyable, she took part in a book club and started listening to audiobooks. “Now when I get to work, I don’t even want to get out of the car because I’m so engaged in what I’m listening to,” she says. She also added some more songs her music playlist. “I listen to my favorite show tunes or my 1970s track on my way to work, which has been a wonderful way to reduce stress.”
All in all, there are various tools and techniques that can help you reduce stress levels. As Funt says, “it’s a matter of experimenting and seeing what works best for you.”
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